Politics & Government

Half the Kentucky House backed bill weakening gay rights. Then it got replaced.

Crosswalks at the intersection of Lexington’s Limestone and Short Street were painted in rainbows colors in advance of the 2017 Pride Festival. Lexington’s “fairness ordinance” protecting gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals would have been significantly weakened by a House bill heard Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee.
Crosswalks at the intersection of Lexington’s Limestone and Short Street were painted in rainbows colors in advance of the 2017 Pride Festival. Lexington’s “fairness ordinance” protecting gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals would have been significantly weakened by a House bill heard Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee. aslitz@herald-leader.com

State lawmakers rewrote a bill Wednesday that would have given churches and religious organizations the right to ignore civil-rights protections offered by Lexington and several other Kentucky cities to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Although House Bill 372 had 46 sponsors — nearly all from the House Republican majority — the House Judiciary Committee replaced the measure with a scaled-back substitute that simply would clarify that churches and ministers do not have to provide wedding services for same-sex couples if they have religious objections.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage already established that clergy have a First Amendment right to not participate in same-sex weddings if they object. Only government officials must recognize same-sex marriages, such as county clerks who provide marriage licenses.

State Rep. Jason Nemes, who offered the substitute, said he didn’t want the legislation to go too far. Other states, including North Carolina, have suffered economic boycotts by wading into controversial battles over sexual orientation and civil-rights protection in the three years since the Supreme Court’s marriage decision.

“I wanted to make sure that the (legislation) that passed out of the House of Representatives protected churches and ministers and didn’t go further than that,” said Nemes, R-Louisville.

Among those disapproving of the bill as originally written was the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Some chamber members “do business in a number of other states, and they had concerns, frankly, about how it would appear to those outside Kentucky if we seemed to be discriminating against any one particular group,” said Dave Adkisson, the chamber’s president.

The bill proceeds to the full House.

Initially, the bill would have created a new section of law to protect churches and religious organizations, such as religious schools and universities, from civil-rights complaints related to sexual orientation or same-sex marriage.

A religious university, for example, could have refused to allow same-sex married couples to live in a dormitory reserved for married students. Or a church could have fired a transgender employee for dress code violations if the church decided the employee was clothed as the wrong gender.

In January, Paducah became the ninth Kentucky city to pass a “fairness ordinance” providing civil-rights protection to LGBTQ individuals.

“The religious liberty and religious freedom of our country are under constant attack,” state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, told the committee as he testified for the bill.

Several Republicans on the committee said they were disappointed because they supported the bill as originally written, but they preferred getting something to nothing. Alternatively, Democrats who said the original bill promoted intolerance added that they had no problem with Nemes’ version, because clergy already are not required to marry anyone under the law.

State Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville, said Republican lawmakers appear to want the bill as a campaign issue for the fall.

“Honestly, I haven’t heard any outrage from any of the churches in my district about having to participate in anyone’s weddings, so I don’t know what problem this is supposed to be solving,” Jenkins said.

“I think what you have here is a majority that controls both legislative chambers, and it’s having a difficult time getting anything done that they promised when they campaigned the last time,” Jenkins said. “Pension reform isn’t happening. They’re struggling to get any kind of a budget passed. So now it’s ‘Hey, let’s do another religious liberty bill.’”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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